I was once in Brugge.
A long time ago.
I remembered it being romantic, quiet, medieval – the perfect fairytale town.
So I went back.
I got on the train at 10:30 Saturday morning, thinking I’d get there at just the right time to spend hours wandering around by myself, being transported back 600 years by the historic quarter, meditating on how I wish I lived in medieval times, feeling somber and contemplative all day, alone with my musings.
What really happened was that I got off the train at 11:30, and was enveloped in a veritable flood of people, all planning to meditate and feel somber together, if by “meditate” and “feel somber” you mean “be obnoxiously loud” and “run rampant through the town with borderline disrespect.”
Alain Botton, in his book The Art of Travel, says something to the effect that our anticipations and expectations of a place invariably let us down once we arrive, because we don’t realize that when we travel, we take ourselves with us. We think we will escape from our problems, when really, our problems arrive right behind us, and we inevitably muck up our vacations by taking ourselves along.
The problem with Brugge is that there are people there. Lots and lots of people. Mostly Spaniards, it seems. I think half the population of Barcelona decided to visit Brugge this very Saturday, and there were not at all somber and meditative shouts of “JODER TIA QUE ME MUERO DE FRIO!” throughout the day. The growl of motorcycles and the hiss of bus engines drowned out the crisp sound of hooves on stone that I was so longing to hear.
I wanted to be transported back in time, but 21st-century civilization kept interfering. All day long, I walked along the banks of the gorgeous canals, wanting to be lost in my imagination but instead hearing snippets of conversation in every language imaginable as people looked confusedly at maps, read guidebooks, talked loudly about the next museum on their busy agendas. I sat on a bench overlooking a canalside vista, and a group of young girls set themselves squarely in my field of vision, excusing themselves only half-heartedly as they snapped a quick photo and then moved on.
I entered the begjinhof, where the nuns still live, which, to my enormous relief, had a large sign printed at the entrance requesting silence and reverence. Here, I thought, I’d finally have my peace.
As you can imagine, this was not the case. Even here, people spoke in loud whispers and even smoked, and the din of nearby traffic could still be heard over the walls. A siren, a motorcycle, the rush of the highway. Out of sight, but not out of mind. There was a little church here in the begjinhof, so I went in, seeking solitude. I sat quietly for a few moments, but even here, there was the constant open and shut of the heavy door, the sound of echoing footsteps, the same loud whispering. Could there be tranquility nowhere?
In Brugge, no matter where you go, you will eventually wind up where you began. I retraced the same streets many times, wandering this way and that, watching and wondering. Though there are a few museums in Brugge, I wasn’t particularly interested in any of them. I just wanted to be there, taking it all in, escaping from the world.
Eventually the cold wind (and inescapable crowds) got the better of me, so after a lunch of double-fried Belgian french fries with curry ketchup (my new favorite, ever since Berlin’s currywurst), I stepped into the Gruuthuse to look around. Actually, the museum was really cool, set in an old mansion, and included some interesting details. One of my favorites was the absolutely enormous black cauldron on the old kitchen hearth (which, of course, stretched the entire length of the wall). It amused me to no end to imagine having to make so much soup or stew that a cauldron of that size would be necessary. The other highlight, for me, was the chapel, which had actually been built into the sanctuary of the neighboring Church of Our Lady, so that the family could watch Mass from the comfort of their own home. That’s some serious power, when your house is allowed to invade God’s house. Also, I really enjoyed the ornate decor of the house, which included an uncomfortable amount of unicorns. Apparently they were the height of masculinity back in the day… like powdered wigs and the color pink.
A while later I stepped out of the museum and was on my way to find some hot chocolate to warm me up when I heard roaring noises coming down the street. I was already annoyed that someone was being so loud and obnoxious when I saw the police car and realized it was a parade. I have NO idea what it was celebrating but it was by far the funniest thing I saw all day. It just seemed so anachronistic to have a bright, loud, techno-thumping, gay-dancing parade in the middle of such a (supposedly) serene place. And the floats were hysterical. They were all pulled by tractors, and one of them featured an American saloon complete with drunken cowboys. There were also Germans in lederhosen, Mayan sun worshippers, snow princes and princesses, and some people in feathers. I was completely amused.
After the unexpected delay, I resumed my search for hot chocolate. After asking some locals, I was directed to Zilverpand, a lesser-known plaza along a side street with a little cafe. I ordered the hot chocolate and received a cup of hot milk with a fondant stick to mix into it, plus a marshmallow, a cookie, and a tiny serving of rice pudding with strawberry sauce. Now that’s what I’m talking about!
After my hot chocolate I ventured far from the town center to visit the windmill. Along the road the noise died down and the lace and chocolate shops were replaced with supermarkets, laundromats, and bars obviously catering to a local clientele. The windmill, high above tiny Brugge, has a lovely view of the city, and when I got there, I realized that the sun would soon be setting. I sat at the top of the hll, staring into the sun as the silhouettes of the cathedral towers and town Belfry grew sharper against the dimming light. There were people here, too, but fewer, and they seemed content to be quiet and watch the sunset in awe under the shadow of a long-unused windmill.
I took my time getting back into town and revisited all my favorite places – the Markt, the Burg, the canals, trying to see them in a different light. The air had grown much colder…but the streets were emptier. The tourists scattered like moths into warm, fire-lit restaurants and taverns, cozy hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. The clicking of horses’ hooves was finally audible, and the hum of the neverending traffic finally ceased. Only the soft whirr of bicycle tires broke the silence. The canals were deserted by nightfall, and I walked slowly along, my heels echoing on the cobblestone and reaffirming the fact that I was, finally, alone with the city. Sure, the shops were closed, the museums asleep, the souvenir stands hauled away – but I hadn’t come to see any of that. I had come to see 600 years of time stripped away, revealing a simpler time, a quieter time. I imagined what it might be like to live in a place where the only sounds were that of people walking, horses trotting, water flowing through canals. No boat tours with loud microphoned guides. No tourists out to see everything in a day. No cars, no motorcycles, no airplanes. Just carts, hooves, and footsteps.
I imagined the lace shops 600 years ago, the same detail, the same painstaking attention, the same intricate weavings, on display in a window. I imagined the smell of bread, and chocolate being poured into molds for a special occasion. I imagined a king, and royalty, and church bells that rang every day, heard clearly throughout the town with nothing to overshadow their importance. I imagined the nuns tending to their daffodil garden, not needing signs telling people to be quiet, not step on the grass, not cause a ruckus. And in my imagination, it was all lovely.
But then I realized it was getting late, and cold, and I had better catch the train. Brought back to reality by the ticking hands of my watch, I hurried through darkened alleys, glancing at my map, taking wrong turns until I finally emerged onto a large plaza full of screeching buses and shouting teenagers on their way to discotheques, mobile phones ringing. I made it back to the station just in time to get on a crowded train full of fidgeting people, laden with bags of chocolate and lace and impatient to get back to their televisions, computers, heated homes.
As the train pulled out of the station at 7:31 on the dot, I realized that I can never truly escape from time. As much as I wish it would, mere architecture will not take me back to a different age, to people who lived a different way. The most I can hope for is to escape for just a moment of silence along a deserted canal in a medieval town, where I can imagine things as I would like them to be….before the tourists come back again.
(Luckily, in the midst of all my curmudgeoning and wistfulness, I managed to take some pictures, which you can see here.)